SCOTT SIMON, host:
A few months ago, a friend in London sent me a clip from that breezy, cheesy TV show that features Simon Cowell - the British version of "American Idol," if you please.
A 37-year-old man named Paul Potts, who sells mobile phones, has a silhouette that's a bit like a diving bell, sparse hair and a jagged smile. He told Mr. Cowell and the other judges that he wanted to sing opera. Right. Well, what followed was one those showbiz moments that remind you of the power of art and talent to elevate and inspire.
(Soundbite of TV show, "Britain's Got Talent")
Mr. PAUL POTTS (Singer): (Singing in Italian)
SIMON: People probably didn't come to that show to hear opera, cried and leapt up in ovation. Paul Potts went on to win the overall competition for "Britain's Got Talent" and to sing for the queen - that is of England. Clips of his appearances have been sent around the world - millions of times on YouTube. Mr. Potts is in the United States this week because he's recorded his first CD, "Paul Potts: One Chance." He joins us from New York. Mr. Potts, thanks so much for being with us.
Mr. POTTS: Thank you very much.
SIMON: I've seen you in a very fine-looking tux on the cover of this CD. It's different from the suit you wore that first time on TV, wasn't it?
Mr. POTTS: Yeah. The original suit cost me 35 francs which is about $70. It was all I had money for at the time, but, you know, I never forget where I came from, and that suit is partly a reminder of that.
SIMON: Put the advantage of a few months hindsight in this absolutely amazing maelstrom of attention that you've won with your talent, were you a mobile phone salesman singing opera, or an opera singer who was just selling mobile phones for a while?
Mr. POTTS: I'd never done singing professionally, so I would say that I was a mobile phone seller that was singing opera. I did it in my spare time, so my career was selling mobile phones.
SIMON: What appealed to you about opera?
Mr. POTTS: It spoke to me in a way that other music didn't. I remember first listening to kind of cheap Jose Carreras CD when I was 16, and just found myself falling in love with the music and the way it spoke to me. I didn't start actually physically singing grand opera until my very late 20s, early 30s. I started singing when I was about six, and the only real time that I've - I actually ever stopped singing was after going through two serious illnesses -an appendix - an appendicitis episode and a huge benign tumor, and then I got run off my bicycle.
Mr. POTTS: And that what stopped me singing. The only time I've really stopped singing since I started when I was six.
SIMON: What would you like to point out to us on this CD? What should we hear?
Mr. POTTS: It's difficult to pick out favorites. I would say that one of them is "Caruso." The words, you know, are absolutely stunning. And the music is unbelievably moving.
(Soundbite of song, "Caruso")
Mr. POTTS: (Singing in Italian)
SIMON: What a wonderful voice you have, Mr. Potts.
Mr. POTTS: Thank you.
SIMON: Now, you - as I understand, you won at least one previous amateur competition, and you used the winnings there to go to Italy and study opera on your own dime.
Mr. POTTS: Yeah. I went to Italy, spent a couple of months — I had to learn language primarily and to have some lesson while I was there and experience life in Italy.
SIMON: And that's where you met - if not got to know - Luciano Pavarotti?
Mr. POTTS: Yeah. I met him just very briefly, and I sang "Che Gelida Monina" from "La Boheme," and I managed to get through to the end of it, and no problems with the high Cs during that one, but I didn't breathe when I normally breathed. And I'd only just made it to the end of the phrase and Pavarotti said, well, you know, Rodolfo would have had enough left to breathe. He said he would have made sure he went to the ending and got his girl. He didn't say a lot. He didn't - he had not much to say on that particular time, but it was a pleasure to meet him.
SIMON: You kept studying, didn't you?
Mr. POTTS: I studied when I could afford it, and after the accident, I couldn't afford any longer. So I made the decision at that time that I couldn't afford to continue with my singing. Besides, I was concerned - they told me that I wouldn't sing again.
SIMON: These are the doctors?
Mr. POTTS: Well, it's financially, really, to be honest, because I didn't have the money to carry on traveling because I was paying to perform, not being paid to perform.
Mr. POTTS: And there was quite a lot of traveling involved, which cost me quite a bit of money. And any lessons that I had, I paid for in my own pocket. And my wife and I couldn't afford that. And my - you know, my wife has always supported me 150 percent all the way through. She would avoid stopping me from doing things that I like doing and, you know, stop doing things she'd liked doing rather than leave me and stop, and I didn't think that would be fair.
SIMON: So then there's this show that becomes very famous - "Britain's Got Talent."
Mr. POTTS: Well, it was the first series of "Britain's Got Talent" and I wasn't sure what to make of it because I'd seen "X Factor" and I'd seen "Pop Idol" before that. I wasn't sure that I had the talent or whether I was too old for it. And I filled in the form, I got to the bottom, and I thought, well, I still don't know. And I took a bit of time out, came back and thought, well, the entries close tomorrow. If I don't submit it, it's going to make its own decision. So in the end, I got the 10 pence piece out of my pocket, flipped the coin and decided, right, if it lands on heads, then I will submit the application. But if it lands on tails, then I cancel it. Looking back, I'm glad it landed on the heads.
SIMON: I'm going to play another clip from your album. Of course, it's become known in this country as "Time to Say Goodbye."
(Soundbite of song, "Time to Say Goodbye")
Mr. POTTS: (Singing) Time to say goodbye. (Singing in Italian)
SIMON: What do you enjoy about singing?
Mr. POTTS: It's a bit like having a key that opens a door and it takes me to a room where I feel at home, and it feels like a place that I always belonged. It's not always been easy to find a door and it's all very well to have the key, but if you can't find the door, it's like, what's its use to you? But, you know, the moment I'm able to get in and out of that door and I'm able to do what I love doing and, you know, I never forget what a privilege that is for me and, you know, how grateful I am to people that voted for me and people that have gone out and bought the album.
(Soundbite of song, "Time to Say Goodbye")
Mr. POTTS: (Singing in Italian)
SIMON: Have you been back to the mobile phone place you used to work?
Mr. POTTS: Yup. I'm still officially employed by them. I was in there the week before last and I popped in, and I still have a log in. And I managed to log in. I had to change my password, but I signed in and find that I had 3,000 e-mails waiting for me. I didn't have a chance to look at them, but I had a good chat with some of the people there and I keep in contact with them by text message and by phone calls, and so it's always good to see my friends.
SIMON: And what's their reaction to all this? I'm just guessing they must be very proud.
Mr. POTTS: They are; they're quite shocked as well. I'd never agreed to sing within in the shop. So even though once they knew I was doing the show, they wanted me to, I just go very coy and go, no, no, I couldn't possible do that. And, you know, I've got quite a few shocked text messages when I was doing the show.
And I actually remember while I was doing the live semi-final, Simon Cowell was just starting to speak and I felt my phone vibrating in my pocket.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. POTTS: And I was thinking, please, please, be on silent because I knew what the message ringtone was on my phone at that time, and it was somebody called Gene Hunt. It was played by a British actor that in - in a British series. And I remembered what was on that particular ringtone was, oi, fatty, shut it, and have another pie - and that's not good.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. POTTS: Please don't - and I mean, it would have been - there would have been nothing I'd been able to do about it. But thankfully, my phone was on silent.
SIMON: Oh. So you went out on stage and sung with the phone in your pocket?
Mr. POTTS: Yeah. I just - I'd left it in my dressing room. I just was just on auto-pilot and just grabbed everything that was on the desk and shoved it on my pocket. I don't know why I picked it up.
SIMON: Mr. Potts, what song would you like us to go out on - of yours?
Mr. POTTS: "Cavatina," I think, is what I picked for my wife, Jules(ph).
(Soundbite of song, "Cavatina")
Mr. POTTS: (Singing) She was beautiful, beautiful to my eyes. From the moment I saw her, the sun filled the sky.
SIMON: Mr. Potts, I got to tell you, I can't get over the idea of having an exquisite voice like yours and not a lot of people hearing it until recently.
Mr. POTTS: Well, I'd never really thought about it as a career before. And I'd never believed that I would ever do it as a career. And, you know, if anybody had told me that I'd be doing what I'm doing now, even six months ago, I'd just tell them to go off to (unintelligible) because I could never have imagined it.
SIMON: Oh, Mr. Potts, it's been awfully nice talking to you.
Mr. POTTS: Nice meeting you.
SIMON: Good luck on all your travels, okay?
Mr. POTTS: Thank you very much. It's been a pleasure.
SIMON: Paul Potts speaking with us from New York - whose new CD is "Paul Potts: One Chance."
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